KIEV: Nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists since fighting erupted in April last year, the nation's president said Friday.
Speaking before parliament, Petro Poroshenko said that more than 1,000 people remained unaccounted for. The figures mark a sharp increase from the most recent United Nations tally of around 6,100 people killed. Addressing an assembly packed with soldiers, Poroshenko said that 1,657 Ukrainian troops had also been killed in combat — which he described as aggression from Russia.
Moscow has always denied supplying separatist rebels with either equipment or manpower, but it has been open in its diplomatic support for the separatists.
Poroshenko said Russian involvement in the war had forced Ukraine to seek to align further with the West.
"Given that the Russian threat is long-term and considering that the aggressive stance and policy of the Russian Federation poses a major threat to national security, the strategy aims to reach full compatibility in the security and defense sectors of Ukraine and NATO," Poroshenko said.
The uneasy cease-fire that has been in place in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk since mid-February has been marred by regular violations, although the scale of fighting has largely subsided since its peak. International cease-fire monitors say both parties are violating the peace agreement by deploying heavy weapons near the front-line.
Separatists have been showing off large amounts of their hardware in rehearsal for a military parade to take place later this week in their stronghold of Donetsk. The city is only a few kilometers from the front-line, so deployment of any firepower with a caliber superior to 100 mm would nominally be in violation of the cease-fire deal. Poroshenko said that the peace deal remained the only option in place for restoring stability to east Ukraine.
"This has enabled some degree of de-escalation in the conflict," he said. "Every day in which nobody dies is like a feast day for me." Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Friday that two soldiers had been killed and another 26 injured over the previous day.
In a calculated snub to Russia, Ukraine this year brought its World War II victory celebrations forward by one day to May 8, the date marked in western Europe. Moscow is set to hold a grand military parade Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany.
Ukraine has adopted the red poppy as a WWII commemorative symbol at pointed variance with Russia, where wearing the black and orange St. George's ribbon has been commonplace. On Friday, a stunt climber scaled a 102-meter Motherland Monument war monument in Kiev to install a braid of giant artificial poppies around the head of the statue....